AS THE CAST eases onstage, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of August Wilson’s Jitney gently starts its engine. The nine actors stroll into the light, greeting one another with handshakes and nods, relishing how the restraint in the opening bars of “Car Wash” gradually gives way to full-on disco. At the lip of the stage, the group comes to a full stop, at ease, eyes level, chins up. They gaze calmly into the dark house, sharing a simple moment with the audience before beginning an almost three-hour ride in Wilson’s Jitney, a play set in his boyhood home of Pittsburgh circa 1976.

Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for Fences and The Piano Lesson, died in 2005 but is remembered as one of the all-time great American playwrights. Wilson dramatized the black experience in America, and his plays endure as rich, poetic, and often painful renderings of families, friendships, and dreams deferred.

The first script that Wilson wrote in his legendary 10-play American Century Cycle, Jitney is the only play in the cycle that had never been to Broadway, until recently, when the play debuted at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in January. Jitney follows the lives of a small group of men running a car service (otherwise known as a “jitney”) out of a dilapidated building that is soon to be demolished, forcing the jitney drivers to find another place to park their business and their lives.

Dion Graham in New York.

 Dion Graham in New York. Photo by Jo Anna Perrin.

Among the members of the Jitney cast is Cincinnati native and Thespian alum Dion Graham, who has returned to his hometown to portray Turnbo, a meddlesome and hyper-talkative jitney driver. A graduate of Walnut Hills High School (Troupe 456), Graham studied at Miami University in Ohio before completing his actor training at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. Now a New Yorker, Graham’s career has flourished on Broadway and in film, TV, and regional theatres. He originated roles in Tennessee Williams’ Not About Nightingales and Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero, among others. Graham has had recurring roles and guest leads on shows such as Madam SecretaryThe Wire, and The Good Wife, and he narrates A&E’s critically acclaimed The First 48, now in its 17th season.

Following a school-day matinee and a talkback with local students, Graham chatted with Dramatics about the rewards and challenges of performing Wilson’s work, his own success in the business, and why it’s important to play.

What was your first play? Was there a moment in high school where you decided, “I want to do this. This is my thing”?
 I believe my first play was I Sincerely Doubt That This Old House Is Very Haunted with Kay King’s Mini-Mummers at CCM [University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music] when I was in fifth grade. I was recommended by my creative dramatics teacher. It was the most fun, freeing experience in the world. Then in ninth grade, I got asked to audition for Guys and Dolls. There are some great, great pictures of skinny Dion with a big afro playing Nathan Detroit. It would be a great story for me to tell you that in high school I had the epiphany that I was going be an actor, but I didn’t. I loved acting. I thought that I might have something to contribute. But I didn’t think that I was going be a professional actor.

DG: I just don’t know if I saw it within my reach. Also, I’m not sure that I thought about it that hard. I had all kinds of interests. When I started college, I thought I was going to go to law school. I was studying political science, thinking, “That’s what I’ll study, then go to law school, and if some director happens to come through and wants to work with me …” Of course, that’s ridiculous. Maybe I would’ve been a great lawyer, who knows? But the biggest reason for that path was financial security. Somehow, though, I began thinking, “That’s not enough. What would you be happy pursuing?” And acting came right up. It came up so powerfully that it was clear I should try to do that. So, I dedicated myself to preparing myself for that journey, and I have absolutely no regrets. It’s been a wonderful journey. I’m very glad that I acted on that impulse.

Is acting and being in shows still fun for you?
DG: It really is. Sometimes it may not seem like fun when you’re working on something and you’ve not quite gotten it yet … but even that’s fun, because I embrace that that’s just part of the process. And I know that good process makes good product. I’m having a ball.

What has it been like working on Jitney?
DG: Working on Jitney has been a rare, special, and extraordinary experience. I’ve been blessed to have a lot of fantastic experiences in the course of my career, and this is a highlight. August Wilson’s work is so rich and has so much to say to us — collectively and as individuals. It’s incredible to have the opportunity to work on it. I’ve done August Wilson’s work before, but it’s the first time I’ve done Jitney.

What do you think audiences can learn from August Wilson?
DG: He investigates the people in his plays with such a great respect for their humanity. I think August has said that even when they lose, they win. I believe he’s talking about how these human beings are revealed to us. Often, in the times we live in, we see ample examples of folks not recognizing the humanity of these particular humans, of these black Americans. But it’s important that the world does see their humanity. August Wilson encourages us to do that. Each night when we do this show, it’s clear that the audience — no matter what their background might be — is taking the ride with us. I’ve heard many people say that this is the best show they’ve ever seen. They are obviously incredibly moved by the show. That’s a great testament not only to the work of the artists onstage but also to the incredible artist who left us this legacy of 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, exploring the black experience, the black psyche, and, in relief to that, the American psyche. Doing this play at this particular time is really potent for audiences to experience.

When the cast enters at the top of the show, they line up along the lip of the stage, looking directly at the audience. What is that moment about?
DG: Our director, Timothy Douglas, wanted an opportunity for us and the audience to experience each other before the play began. Some folks asked if we are in character, are we not in character. He did not specify. He simply wanted people to engage with us and us to engage with them — if they were open to that — just to be with each other as human beings.

Wilson’s characters have vibrant emotional lives. One moment could be warm, the next could be funny, and then the next could be violent.
DG: What a ride to take. It’s much like life. We never know what’s going to happen in the rollercoaster ride of life. As an actor, that’s exhilarating. It’s so rich with experience, and it requires a lot of energy. At the end of the week, we are —

You’re tired.
DG: Yes, but blessedly so. It shouldn’t be any other way. It should cost. If we’re really taking the journey, it should cost. If it doesn’t, then the audience doesn’t take the ride with us in the same way.

I almost couldn’t watch the moment that Turnbo holds his fellow jitney driver Youngblood at gunpoint. How did you all work through that in rehearsal?
DG: In rehearsal, we didn’t have the weapon at first, so we focused mostly on what was going on that led us to that point, what was going on in this conflict, and seeing what happens from that. What if the gun fired? We’d have a completely different scene. What if it fired accidentally? We’d have a completely different scene. What if Youngblood hits Turnbo and knocks him out? We’d have a completely different scene.

We both were very available to anything happening, and it didn’t always go exactly the same way. The crafting of the moments was supple enough that it allowed for us to play, to respond to what is going on in the moment. We tried to approach it with a lot of openness, which creates a very raw situation. I get a little emotional just talking about it. When the scene starts, it looks like these two are actually going to have some kind of bonding for the first time in the play, but it ends with Turnbo pulling a gun.

So, what did you think of that moment?
DG: In the latter part of the scene, when he comes back, he’s obviously beside himself. He’s pulled a gun on someone that I don’t think he wanted to pull a gun on. Well, why would he do that? Think about it. We read all the time in the newspaper that this thing happened among people that really cared about each other — whether they were family, whether they were friends, whether they worked together. How did that happen?

It seems to me that he’s really quite hurt that it went down like this. Nobody took his side. He got hit, and nobody stood up for him. Fielding [another driver in the jitney] says, “You got to have somebody you can depend on. You got to have somebody.” And earlier in the play, when Turnbo talks about Booster’s father [Becker, the boss of the jitney station] never going down to see his son in prison for 20 years, Youngblood says, “Well, I guess that’s his business.” And Turnbo says, “Hell, that’s his own son. If he don’t stand up for him, who’s going to? He ain’t got nobody else.”

What do you think of Turnbo?
DG: That’s like asking me about my baby. You love all your babies. I love Turnbo. He’s such an enigmatic character. And I love the fact that he’s on such a rollercoaster ride. In some ways, Turnbo is lost. I don’t think his life is really settled. He may not show it on the street, but he’s a little bit unmoored. This jitney station surrounded by boarded up buildings, this bombed-out shell about to be torn down — this is a sanctuary for these people? What does that say? What is the author trying to tell us?


The violence in Wilson’s work — the emotional and physical violence — where does that come from, and what should audiences take from it?
DG: August Wilson is looking at the black experience in this country, and the journey has been full of all kinds of things, things that we find warm and we love but also very, very difficult things, beginning with slavery and the Antebellum era and continuing with Jim Crow — many issues of survival under oppressive systems, including racism and its effects. That’s why I believe that when we see his plays, we see American society in relief. We can see ourselves, and there’s a lot for us to reflect on, a lot for us to look plainly at and think, “What do I think about that” or “Where are we about that?”

A lot of the violence in his plays comes out of dealing with and investigating the truth of human situations. Sometimes it’s not anything to do directly with issues of society, per se. It might have to do with a family dynamic. It might have to do with people being pushed up against a wall. It might have to do with cruel fate. For instance, the character Becker is a good man, and he tried to spend his whole life helping people and being an upstanding man. Then one day he goes to do a favor for his old boss, and the machine breaks.

What are you hoping for in your future career?
DG: When I first started on this journey, my goal wasn’t to become rich and famous, though I’ve had a beautiful career and everything is really good for me. I’m thankful for that. My goal was to make a living doing quality work in quality projects. That has happened over and over again. I am thrilled to have had so many opportunities to play, to do my craft, to do my thing — from Shakespeare and classical stuff to contemporary and experimental stuff. I also love that I get to bounce back and forth among film, theatre, and television, as well as narration work, which is just an extension of my artistic work as an actor.

If you had one piece of advice for a young Thespian who’s serious about a life like yours, what would you say?
DG: Prepare yourself. Some people think, “All I need is the B.F.A.” Go to college. Study anything that interests you. Then I would recommend getting more training. It’s really competitive out here. Also, it’s just really useful to have the opportunity to take risks, to find out about who you are as a person and as an artist, and to acquire tools that you can put in your toolbox and carry with you.

Another thing I might say is to remember that, even though it can seem like a very serious business at times, ultimately, we want to be able to play within the seriousness. When we’re 7 years old, it’s not so hard to play, but when we get older, we get self-conscious, and it can seem harder to play. But that’s the name of the game. You want to be well prepared so you can be free to discover — and play!

Anybody who’s been in my workshops has also heard me say that all kinds of roads lead to Rome, and it’s important to find the simplest and most meaningful one for you.

Has Jitney taught you something meaningful about yourself?
DG: It has reminded me how important it is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. All kinds of things can happen through vulnerability. You find out so much about yourself and so much about other people. It has reminded me to remain open and see what happens from that.

This story appeared in the March 2017 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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